It’s pretty easy to understand why the ZiK headphones turned heads when Parrot debuted them early this year. Striking design (courtesy of Philippe Starck) aside, the cans pack all the buzzwords you might hear associated with high-end headphones (active noise cancellation! digital equalizer!), a Bluetooth headset (NFC pairing! bone conduction!), and a touchscreen smart device (gesture controls! capacitive touch panel!). But when you blend so many disparate features into one, is the result a headphone pair with a serious identity crisis or one that’s pitch perfect?
Parrot packed plenty of firsts into what is, coincidentally, the French company’s first high-end headphones--its first headphones, period, actually. On the outside of the right earcup, for example, is a capacitive touch panel, which controls playback on any paired device. (A microUSB charging port and 3.5-mm headphone jack are also on the right cup.) On the left are the NFC radio and 800 mAh battery (about 6 hours of playback with all the radios on). Unlike typical noise-canceling pairs, the ZiK has not two but five microphones: two inside each earcup, two on the bottom of the left, and one on the bottom of the right. A pair of decently-large 40mm Neodymium drivers handle incoming audio. With so much inside, Parrot has kept the ZiK -- with its metal and leather finishes -- at a reasonable 11.5 ounces.
The design: Parrot’s decision to partner with Philippe Starck, a well-known industrial and architectural designer, was the first step towards setting the ZiK apart. Everything about the pair looks and feels luxurious. The leather headband leads into elegant horned arms that connect to the earcups, where the curvature is mirrored in the bass vents towards the bottom of each cup. The exterior of the earcups is a soft-touch plastic (you’ve probably felt something like it on the back of an Android phone -- or seven), and the interior is a soft cushioned leather. All that attention to detail made ZiK comfortable to wear for several hours on end; they stayed balanced on my head and didn’t put pressure on my tiny ears.
The controls and sensors: Although Bluetooth pairing has gotten much easier over the last few years, it’s not perfect, so Parrot wisely decided to do something about it via a vis NFC. When I held an NFC capable device, in this case a Nexus 7, up against the left earcup, the pair of devices automatically established a Bluetooth connection. But while there’s no denying that NFC works, the ZiK will only pair this way on devices running the latest Jelly Bean Android OS. The number of devices with that OS will, thankfully, continue to grow, and Apple is rumored to have finally gotten around to adding NFC to its impending “iPhone 5.” Sans NFC, however, I had no problems pairing the ZiK to my devices the old-fashioned way.
Once I paired the ZiK with my phone (I first used a Droid Incredible and then an iPhone 4S), all the playback controls transferred to the headphones. On the right earcup, swiping forward and back changed tracks, up and down adjusted volume, and a single tap triggered play/pause. The controls are sensitive, but not so much so that they ever misread my commands; if a swipe wasn’t a nice, straight line back-to-front, as long as it was close it wouldn’t mistake it for a volume down-to-up movement. (I was concerned that reaching up to adjust the fit would result in frequent accidental track skips and pauses, but they headband kept the ZiK pretty well in place.) One of the best ideas: a pressure sensor inside the right cup senses when the headphones are on your head. Take the headphones off, and your audio pauses automatically.
The sound and the app: Out of the box, the audio on the ZiK is good, but there’s plenty you can do to improve it. Without touching the EQ, bass was far too heavy, and without active noise cancellation (ANC) on, most songs sounded muddy and distant. The first time you pair the ZiK, though, you’re prompted to download Parrot’s app (currently Android and iOS), which unlocks the audio potential of the otherwise dull-sounding cans.
The first thing I did was investigate the equalizer, which was puzzlingly preset to “Club” mode (clearly they do not understand the life of a science/tech writer. Parrot says this was a mistake and it should've been set to "User" by default); I cycled through some other presets and then just decided to tweak the levels manually with the on-screen sliders. Problem one, solved. Next up, turning on the ANC; ahhhhhhhh, much better. With the noise-canceling mics and processor working at full steam, my music (mostly rock and indie alternative) sounded great--ANC doesn't completely block outside noise, but it's a huge help, almost like dunking your head underwater to mute noise. I turned ANC back off in a quiet corner of my apartment, and tracks quickly faded away again--you're meant to use it, I suppose. I decided to just leave ANC on. Problem two, solved.
Once that was all taken care of, I was quite pleased with how the ZiK sounded. Detail in tracks came through well, and the signal was clear -- especially for a Bluetooth pair, which have so often been plagued by crappy compression and erratic signals.
Given how much I needed to use the app to make the ZiK okay to listen to, it’s a little concerning how little control you actually have over audio performance without it. You can’t even turn ANC on and off from the headset itself. That leads me to the largest issue with the ZiK: it’s a headphone pair with a serious identity crisis. The luxurious style of the ZIK makes them feel like a pair best suited for listening while lounging, not while on the go. How many audiophiles do you know who will use a Bluetooth headphone pair with their home sound system? I’d wager not very many, even with all the positive steps Bluetooth audio has made. (Yes, you can plug these in with a standard (included) 3.5mm cable, but that switches the headphones from running off the battery to running off your audio device, and, curiously, the sound quality suffers.) On the flipside: was I comfortable wearing the pristine and extremely expensive ZiK on the grungy NYC subway? Nope, I wasn’t. To have the ZiK so irrevocably linked to a smart device, then, is a confounding proposition.
I’d also be hard pressed to use the ZiK has a Bluetooth headset for calls. Call quality on the other side of the line (I left myself a couple voice messages over the long weekend) was okay when the room is quiet. But when things get loud - -when I moved closer to an A/C on full blast -- and the bone-conduction sensor kicked in, my voice got choppy and hard to hear. And when I wasn’t speaking (ie: when the ZiK weren’t actively canceling out ambient noise) all i could hear was the hissssss of the air conditioner. Talking on the ZiK is okay in a pinch, but will never be my default.
At $400, Parrot is chasing the high-end set here--audiophiles are notorious for spending huge amounts of money on gear, but the ZiK might be better for merely outrageously rich folks.
It’s hard to say exactly who would buy a pair of these. With some features targeted directly at mobile users and others squarely at audiophiles, its place in the market is hard to decipher. Still, you could do a lot worse for the price--competing headphones from Sennheiser or Grado may have more audiophile cred, but they don't have nearly the featureset (nor strength in design). The ZiK provides a virtual kitchen sink of flashy features, that, for the most part, add up to something at least worth a listen.
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